I Spent a Week Down the Right-Wing Media Rabbit Hole—and Was Mesmerized by It
Here’s what it’s like to spend a full week of COVID-19 quarantine holed up consuming nothing but Fox News, talk radio, conservative websites, and One America News.
Isolated. Detached. Disoriented. Disconnected from the real world. Damaged mental health. Even fear of survival.
No, I’m not talking about coronavirus quarantine. That’s going fine, considering.
I’m referring to my week-long self-imposed experiment: I simulated the content consumption of a Trump voter. What they read, I read. What they watch, I watched.
Before being called naïve for being surprised at anything I experienced, my bona fides: over the past three years I’ve appeared on cable news almost 250 times, including 89 appearances on every major Fox News show except Sean Hannity (who’s never invited me; tick tock), 157 on MSNBC, CNN, and others. To the extent there are two bubbles, I’m one of the few who commutes between them. Yet, I wanted to fully immerse myself to see how the other 40 percent live.
I abided by three simple rules.
First, I could neither watch nor read any news outlet I normally would (as well as Twitter), nor rely on any resource I would to research an issue.
Second, I had to spend at least the same amount of time devouring content as I otherwise would. Meaning I could not simply watch 20 minutes of Fox every day and call it a good-faith experiment.
Third, I had to pay attention. This was tough because I have a terrible habit of having cable news turned on in whatever room I happen to be in. I don’t actually listen; it’s white noise, a din maintained at a level I cannot make out the words but can tell when Wolf Blitzer’s voice signals distress.
The rules meant goodbye to NBC’s Today, hello Fox & Friends. Adios CNN’s The Situation Room, nice to meet you Fox’s America’s Newsroom.
But while Fox was the starting point, it wasn’t simply about Fox bingeing. More and more Trump voters don’t, so I didn’t.
CNN was replaced by One America News, the newest and potentially most dangerous (evidenced by Don Jr. reportedly seeking to buy it for his father’s post-presidency). At noon, I listened to Rush Limbaugh on the radio rather than watch Andrea Mitchell. At 3 p.m., I listened to Sean Hannity’s radio show instead of, well, my siesta.
This also meant I went cold turkey on The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast (no offense), Politico, and Axios, replacing them with The Daily Caller, Gateway Pundit, Townhall.com, and The Drudge Report.
Typically, my cable-news addiction ends every weekday around 7 p.m. By that point, I’m satisfied I won’t miss out on something big and shift to lighter fare. But for this week, in order to experience the full effect of conservative news addiction, I had to go further than my typical schedule by sprinkling in Fox’s primetime sluggers’ row of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham (though only one night as a single three-hour block; even science has its limits).
My journey began, fittingly enough, at 7 a.m. on a Monday with Fox & Friends. It ended the following Sunday night at 9 p.m. with Fox’s “Together” town-hall event (aka, 120-minute paid programming) featuring Trump, Vice President Pence, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
By any reasonable benchmark, evidence of the coronavirus pandemic’s destruction is abundant and incontrovertible. Yet many Trump allies and supporters baselessly challenge the most basic medical realities. Some even contend it is yet another man-made (aka, Democrats) hoax. The truth, though, is simple. More Americans have died from COVID-19 than from the Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam Wars combined and unemployment is higher than it’s ever been in our country—both without end in sight.
While the topics of Mike Flynn’s criminal case and Tara Reade’s accusations against Joe Biden garnered significant attention in both time and relentless emphasis, I focused primarily on coronavirus coverage for a simple reason: On this topic, distortions for political purposes causing fractures along partisan lines have actual life and death consequences.
Below are my overall findings, with some details blurred only by delirium.
- Fox & Friends is an interesting, and insidious, beast. It differs the most from its direct time slot competitors–certainly the network morning shows which at 7 a.m. wade gingerly into heavy topics they cover relatively briefly. But Fox & Friends has a different formula. First, guests are always interviewed by its troika of hosts, giving it a breezier, conversational tone. This allows more of such conversations for longer periods of time than Today or Good Morning America would ever dedicate. Their conversational style is reinforced by everything heinous being hidden by a smirk, a giggle, or some aw-shucks Baby Boomer humor, as if to suggest “We can’t be hateful if we’re smiling!”
- Fox’s paid contributors and guests do much of the heavy lifting in terms of injecting vitriol into programming. It is astounding how many times every hour former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee pops up. During my experiment, he seemed to appear more frequently than a field correspondent, but because his role is unencumbered by pesky facts, he is allowed to make statements with an air of authority about the impact to human life while society is closed being more damaging then the actual human toll.
- Fox did not cover even one minute of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily press conferences during my viewings, despite being based in New York City. Seems odd.
- It’s easy to understand why so many tune into Rush Limbaugh. He’s easy listening. (Though it’s unclear why he has a business-size printer as well as a separate photocopier on the desk behind him.) What stood out to me is how complimentary he is to his audience while also spoon-feeding them. The liberals say I tell you what to think, what to do, like I’m some Pied Piper. But we know you don’t need me to tell you Trump was joking about ingesting bleach. He knows you never would. And I would never need to tell you to join the protest against Governor Whitmer being held at 3 p.m. today at the corner of Main and Oak. You already have it on your calendar for today at 3 p.m..
- Sean Hannity’s primetime show is very watchable; Hannity’s daytime radio show is unbearable. On the radio, he speaks far less than Rush, but when he does there’s an air that he’s doing so without fear of being eavesdropped on by his enemies the way he is on his cable show. Suffice to say, he lets the vitriol fly in an even more jarring way than at 9 p.m. on TV.
- Fox’s The Five, which airs at 5 p.m., illustrates the most blatant absurdity of the network’s already tenuous assertion that its pre-primetime programming is “news.” Its co-host Jesse Watters’ grade-school-level commentary makes Jeanine Pirro look like Walter Cronkite. It’s as if Don Jr. was given 280,000-character-limit tweets.
- In an honest attempt to be fair and balanced: it would be interesting to compare transcripts of Fox’s daytime “hard news” broadcasts with their analogues on CNN and MSNBC. This is not meant as a defense of Fox, but would likely reinforce the observation that their roster of guests do much of the dirty work in peddling misinformation even during news hours.
- While there are instances CNN and MSNBC hosts display glimmers of bias, it’s usually accompanied by hesitancy followed by pangs of guilt. You can call Fox News personalities many things, but tentative is not one of them. The shamelessness in their delivery is uniform up and down the lineup.
- The Drudge Report, once the online town crier of the right-wing bubble, now pales in comparison to the likes of Gateway Pundit. Drudge links to so many mainstream media outlets, such as the Associated Press and Reuters, and to enough Trump-skeptical content that on day two I deemed it contrary to the spirit of the simulation and blacklisted it lest I fall down the rabbit hole of facts, truth, and sanity.
- The Gateway Pundit is the least subtle of them all (no easy feat), starting with its headlines: from “15 Questions for Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx Before They Completely Annihilate the US Economy” to “CNN IS A CANCER” to “WTH? Joe Biden Speaks Gibberish.”
- Mike Flynn’s tenure as national security adviser must have ended as a result of being kidnapped by the so-called “Deep State,” because you’d never know he lost his job as a result of Trump firing him (and his son).
- Based on the ceaseless barrage in the conservative media ecosystem, you’d think Joe Biden is an invalid who can’t stay awake and has destroyed more lives than the coronavirus.
- “If you’re looking for the best night’s sleep in the whole wide world,” look no further than MyPillow.
Now, a confession: Before it even started I intended to end the experiment early purely for the rhetorical shtick of saying I couldn’t take it anymore. Except by day three it became clear I could. For a few reasons I had not considered.
While the left sees a steady stream of Fox clips featuring Don Jr.’s musings and Dan Bongino’s histrionics, what we don’t see is the bulk of the time they spend as much time on similarly mindless TV. Fox has cooking segments. Celebrity news. So there is balance—not within Fox or the rest—but by virtue of us all meeting in our nation’s true middle ground: neutral channels offering Law & Order, CSI, and Tiger King. Even the red-tinted Hallmark Channel airs Golden Girls. They read Page Six and People just like us.
There were also some fun moments along the way:
- At the end of one segment about Democratic hypocrisy in not believing all accusers, the anchor said: “After the break we will be joined by Jim Jordan to discuss the latest Flynn revelations.” Yes, that Jim Jordan of “allegedly covering up sexual-assault accusations against an OSU team doctor while he coached wrestling there” fame.
- The Gateway Pundit’s “Outrageous! FOX News Cuts Ties with Diamond and Silk” indignation.
- The complete absence of 1-877-Kars-4-Kids commercials, reason enough to become a Republican.
- Confirming its status as Viagra of right-wing websites, in between its faux-woke coverage of the MeToo movement, The Daily Caller’s dozens of narcoleptic headlines such as: “BARBARA FIALHO ROCKS SKIMPY BIKINI,” “KATE BOCK TEARS UP INSTAGRAM WITH GREAT PICTURE,” “NINA AGDAL GOES TOPLESS,” “BELLA HADID TORCHES INTERNET WITH RACY BRALESS SHOTS,” and “HANNAH JETER WINS DAY WITH JAW-DROPPING BIKINI SHOT.”
- When I said, “Alexa, watch Fox News,” she responded with, “Can you repeat that?” (I only imagined this exchange.)
Overall, I walked away with four main findings.
First, I could not know what I did not know. Even with the benefit of starting the week knowing what was going on in the world, I had no way of knowing exactly which new happenings the right’s ecosystem was glossing over.
Second, there is a big difference between comparing bias to bias when the right relies on baseless assertions and outright lies to deliver their political viewpoint. This isn’t really a battle between biases; it’s one of truth versus lies.
Third, Fox News actually pales in comparison to the other, mostly digital outlets who never veer from the Trump script. Never. Not even once. And those outlets will happily go after Fox for any perceived slight to the president.
Fourth, OAN–the newest media outlet to join the fray–is more dangerous than I believed in 2018 when I tweeted that its emergence was not to be ignored. It by far creates the most web content. Between the volume and the steady tenor, it can easily feel like one-stop shopping.
More than any perceived media bias, what informs one’s worldview is their own personal virus. Could Fox, OAN and The Daily Caller have actually convinced me of anything? Highly unlikely. But if you are predisposed to believing rogue elements are exaggerating if not outright concocting the source and lethality of a pandemic–or election interference, or graft–you are already doing the hard part yourself. There are some people who can be conned and some who cannot. Con artists can smell the difference, whether it’s the scent of gullibility, desperation, or being all-too-eager. People who believe what a con artist tells them want to believe it.
As a State Department official I traveled to 111 countries. Add a couple dozen more on my own. All felt less foreign than the parallel universe I visited for a week.
When it was over I was left with one overarching thought: if someone develops an ingestible disinfectant, I volunteer for clinical trials.
It may be the only way to cleanse my soul.
Philippe Reines is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State & Senior Adviser to Hillary Clinton, and a visiting lecturer at Tufts University’s Tisch College.